In the AMC series Mad Men, creator Matthew Weiner takes us back to a magical time and place when executives took work breaks in between smoking, Scotch was as much a part of the office landscape as Scotch tape, and the secretaries wore skirts, not sexual harassment suits.
By the late 1990s, only Tony, Silvio, and the rest of the Sopranos crew retained such perks, but in 1960, Mad Men suggests, every account executive was a made man, as long as he was white, male, and non-Jewish. And the headquarters of Sterling Cooper, the advertising agency where Mad Men is set, was essentially the Bada Bing, only with typewriters and slightly more servitude demanded from the female staffers.
As with The Sopranos (where Weiner worked as a writer and executive producer for the last two seasons), Mad Men focuses on an institution in flux. In the former series, Tony Soprano spends much of his time fretting that Mafia's time-honored codes have lost their power, that, as he put it to Dr. Melfi in the show's first episode, he'd "come in at the end" and "the best" was already over. In the latter show, Sterling Cooper creative director Don Draper appears blessed with all the outward trappings of American midcentury abundance, but inside he feels as empty as Neal Cassady's piggy bank as the promise of upwardly mobile white-collar America dead-ends into an unfulfilling suburban cul de sac.
Don's picturebook house in Connecticut? His picturebook wife and kiddies? His picturebook career-gal goomah who lives in Greenwich Village? They do nothing to salve his Sartre-sized angst. But what exactly is he yearning for? With the show's lesser characters, it's more clear. The copywriter wants to write short stories, not copy. The account executives also want to be Serious Writers.
Draper, however, is a cipher, twice as handsome as a department store mannequin but not even half as expressive. Unlike Tony Soprano, he doesn't yearn for the way things were (when, presumably, creative directors still took pride in convincing housewives the right deodorant could make their lives more meaningful). And unlike his contemporaries the Beats, or even his more adventuresome brethren in the advertising business, he shows little interest in the possibilities of the freer, more self-indulgent existence that life in America seems rushing toward in its big new cars on its big new highways.
The producers of Mad Men have chosen a great moment in time to situate a series. And given that this was the dawn of the Information Age, when America was becoming less about making things and more about transmitting data, it makes sense to focus on ad men, who understood long before most that even when people are buying tangible goods they're really hungry for more virtual payoffs: status, security, freedom from fear.
Halfway through the first season, all viewers really know about the show's main character is that he's the process of some Gatsby-like self-invention -- "Don Draper" wasn't his birth name, and he has a secret half-brother he'd prefer to keep secret. And that he looks great smoking a cigarette.
The Sopranos proved that America will even love a fat, balding murderer who cheats on his mistresses, as long as he seems sufficiently invested in the notion that life holds some promise of self-fulfillment and contentment. But can America really love a guy whose sleeks suits are stuffed with nothing more than pure existential dread? The smart money says "Fuhgeddaboutit!"
A frequent contributor to Las Vegas Weekly, Greg Beato has also written for SPIN, Blender, Reason, Time.com, and many other publications. Email Greg at [email protected]